Lost In Europe, a Volcano and Diving for Coins

A Short Story

There are times when you experience something that just stays with you. This account involves a couple of things that still remain vivid to this day.

In the 60’s while in the Mediterranean I spent a few days in Taormina, Sicily as part of a group of Navy divers. I think the Navy misplaced us and we were just there waiting to be found. Taormina was a great place to spend time. There were a number of really good places to eat, the people were friendly, the girls pretty and the water was crystal clear. All in all a great place to be lost.

Mount Etna puts on a show.

The town had a nice harbor and waterfront and it was protected by a jetty. The harbor side of the jetty had a pier and at the entrance to the pier was a small cafe with outside tables on a patio. On our first day there we spent the evening drinking beer and wine and watching the show from the slopes of Mount Etna, a short distance down the coast. There was a constant and impressive orange, glowing flow of lava down the mountain that was as good as any fireworks show.

the harbor at Taormina, Sicily

While we were in Taormina a cruise ship docked and when it docked we had just been snorkeling off the far side if the jetty. As we were walking back up the pier a few cruise passengers started yelling at us and throwing coins in the water wanting us to dive for the coins. We had no idea who they were but I think it was an Italian Liner, and I think they thought we were locals expecting them to throw the coins. What the heck – we had the gear and there was money being thrown into the sea. Within a half hour or so we had enough to buy our drinks that evening and as we left the pier everybody took pictures and waved as we shouted grazie back. I’m guessing that those passengers didn’t know and would never believe that they were throwing coins to a team of U.S. Navy divers and I bet a few pictures of those local divers made into a scrapbook or two. A couple of days later we repeated the exercise for a second cruise ship.

Mount Etna erupts.

We really enjoyed the snorkeling while there and while there weren’t the coral reefs we were used to there was a lot of sea life around. Against recommended practice we had not really looked at charts of the area but we were just doing shallow water snorkeling anyway. On an afternoon we started swimming out toward the Mount Etna coast and as we cleared the Taormina area a number of large swells started moving in. The next thing we knew we were swimming through an area of shallow water with a number of large rocks and as the swells rolled in the rocks went from three feet under water to explosively erupting from the sea. Everywhere we swam there were explosions of foam in the water around us and we feared getting slammed into a rock as it broke violently from the water. For safety we pointed ourselves straight out to deeper water. Within about fifty yards the impression was that everything was getting dark around us and looking down we realized that the entire seafloor was dropping straight into an abyss. While it never mattered before if the water beneath me was 30 feet or 3,000 feet, this experience was literally disorienting. Like I was seeing the world drop away below.

In looking into it later we discovered we had been swimming over where the tectonic plate of North Africa was plunging under the European plate and that resulted in an ocean trench dropping quickly to 10,000 feet. It was also the reason a volcano sat a short distance away on the coast.

As we travel the world in recent years I have wanted to get back to Taormina, Sicily and spend an evening near that pier drinking a glass or two of wine while watching Etna put on her show in the distance. Being an avid cruiser I would bet they don’t throw coins to local divers any more though.

cruising by the volcano of Stromboli.

Also if you happen to go on a Mediterranean cruise that goes down the west coast of Italy toward the Straights of Messina keep an eye out for the island of Stromboli about 30 miles north of the straights. The island is home to Etna’s sister, another active volcano which has always surprised me as there are two towns sitting there between the Devil and the deep blue sea.

Without going into details about the operation we were supposed to be involved in I was part of a Navy group in the Mediterranean in the 60’s that the Navy lost track of. It seems we were supposed to be sent to Torremolinos, Spain but because some clerk got confused by the names, we ended up being sent to Taormina, Sicily with nobody near to report to. Again, sometimes it isn’t bad getting lost.

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